Timuel Black, 102: Historian and Organizer of Black ChicagoHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Chicago, Timuel Black, urban history
Timuel Black, who mobilized the political power of the predominantly Black South Side of Chicago, taught others — including a young Barack Obama — how to do the same, and in his final decades compiled oral histories giving voice to his community’s Black working class, died on Wednesday at his home on the South Side. He was 102.
His wife, Zenobia Johnson-Black, said the cause was prostate cancer.
In 1955, soon after he had begun his career as a high school and college teacher, Professor Black saw the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a sermon on television. He was so moved that he immediately flew to Alabama, his birthplace, to meet Dr. King, who was more than a decade his junior. In the coming years, he helped build support networks for Dr. King while commuting between Chicago and Alabama.
In the South, Professor Black also met the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. After Mr. Randolph established the Negro American Labor Council, an advocacy organization, he enlisted Professor Black in 1960 to run its Chicago division. In 1963, Mr. Randolph and Dr. King put Professor Black in charge of organizing residents of Chicago to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Dr. King sensed that he needed us elders and the many who, like me, had our heritage in the South, our families having fled the South, and who had experienced the segregated army,” Professor Black wrote in his memoir, “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black,” published in 2019. “And I needed the leadership.”
In 1975, after decades working at high schools, mostly in Chicago, he became a professor of sociology, anthropology and Black history at Loop College, which was later renamed Harold Washington College.
That name change was one of many local developments that might never have occurred without Professor Black’s background maneuvering.
In 1982, Harold Washington, a friend of Professor Black’s from his youth, represented their neighborhood in the House of Representatives. Professor Black and others suggested that he run for mayor. In his memoir, Professor Black recalled that Mr. Washington laughed in response.
“Sure,” Mr. Washington said. “If you get 50,000 new Black voters, and raise a hundred thousand dollars, then I’ll consider it.”
Professor Black started a fund-raising drive and helped organize a voter registration campaign. Ultimately, he and his group told Mr. Washington that they had come up with 263,000 new voters and more than $1 million.